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How Rick Hahn and the White Sox could end up the biggest difference-makers in the MLB playoffs

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USA TODAY

How Rick Hahn and the White Sox could end up the biggest difference-makers in the MLB playoffs

Without the White Sox, this year's MLB postseason would look a lot different.

Already, just one game in, former White Sox players are starring, and with all the talent traded away from the South Side in the past year, it's not unreasonable to suggest that one of the biggest difference-makers in the 2017 playoffs could be Rick Hahn.

Tuesday night's AL wild card game was a good one, the New York Yankees topping the Minnesota Twins by an 8-4 score to advance to the ALDS. And while the Yankees' trio of homers — smacked by Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and Brett Gardner — had nothing to do with the White Sox, former South Side relief pitchers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle combined to throw 5.2 innings of scoreless ball. Those innings were crucial after Yankees starting pitcher Luis Severino was lifted after recording just one out in the first inning. Severino coughed up three first-inning runs and earned a quick hook in the winner-take-all game. Fortunately for the Yankees, the offense responded with three runs of its own in the bottom of the first and the bullpen stopped the bleeding. Robertson and Kahnle did the majority of that work.

That deadline deal involving the White Sox and Yankees, which also included third baseman Todd Frazier, was tremendously beneficial for both sides as the two franchises are at vastly different places when it comes to competing for a championship. The Yankees made that deal for exactly this kind of scenario, and without it, maybe the Twins would have advanced on Tuesday night.

But the AL wild card game won't be the only place the White Sox recent flurry of deals will be felt this postseason. Obviously the Yankees now move on to face off against the Cleveland Indians, and Robertson, Kahnle and Frazier figure to all continue to play big roles for the Bronx Bombers. But look elsewhere on the bracket, too. The two guys who just a year ago topped the White Sox rotation are now pitching in the playoffs with new teams.

Chris Sale will get the ball in Game 1 of the ALDS between his Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros. Sale, who struck out 308 hitters this season and is a candidate to win the AL Cy Young, could have a monumental impact on the playoffs for as long as the Red Sox stay alive. He's the kind of top-of-the-line starting pitcher who the Red Sox could throw twice in a best-of-five series and three times, perhaps, in a best-of-seven series. As we've seen in recent years with pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber and Cole Hamels and further back with guys like Josh Beckett, one starting pitcher can dominate a postseason. Is Sale that guy this year? That would be some instant gratification for the Red Sox after the offseason trade that sent Sale to Boston and brought back Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to the White Sox.

Jose Quintana, meanwhile, might not be the ace of the Cubs' starting staff, but he'll make his first career postseason start in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals. Quintana was one of the Cubs' most reliable starting pitchers down the stretch, posting a 2.52 ERA in five September starts, and he figures to make a big difference every time he grabs the ball. Obviously, the longer the Cubs remain in the playoffs, the greater an impact he will make.

It's well known the prospects that Hahn acquired in the deals that sent these impact guys out of town, and that's gone a long way toward building what he hopes is a championship team of the future. Don't be surprised, though, if one of these deals ends up making a big difference on whatever team is the championship squad of the present.

Just for fun, here are all the former White Sox (and some former White Sox farmhands) on the 40-man rosters of this year's playoff teams:

— Cleveland Indians: Austin Jackson

— Houston Astros: Tyler Clippard, Chris Devenski, Francisco Liriano

— Boston Red Sox: Chris Sale, Addison Reed, Chris Young

— New York Yankees: Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Todd Frazier

— Minnesota Twins: Eduardo Escobar

— Los Angeles Dodgers: Brandon McCarthy, Trayce Thompson

— Washington Nationals: Matt Albers, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Alejandro De Aza, Adam Eaton

— Chicago Cubs: Jose Quintana, Alex Avila

Eloy Jiménez thriving in loaded lineup: 'Thank god I'm part of the White Sox'

Eloy Jiménez thriving in loaded lineup: 'Thank god I'm part of the White Sox'

Eloy Jiménez has settled into a nice routine for his media sessions.

He gives an exaggerated wave, usually with both arms, asks everyone how they’re doing and loudly exclaims about this writer’s facial hair.

Given that kind of thing is par for the course in every interaction with Jiménez, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time that the ebullient outfielder has ever been uncomfortable since arriving on the South Side at the start of last season.

But whether he was uncomfortable or just less comfortable, there’s no doubting he’s super comfortable now.

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Jiménez launched a clutch, game-tying home run Tuesday, an absolute bomb that traveled 428 feet to dead-center field. It was the biggest blast in the White Sox 3-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers, the team’s sixth straight.

Like several others in the White Sox firing-on-all-cylinders lineup, Jiménez is off to a rip-roaring start. His homer Tuesday night was his third in the nine games he’s played this season. He’s slashing .333/.378/.667.

Things are going well for these White Sox, and Jiménez is right in the middle of it.

“It feels really nice, you know?” he said after Tuesday’s game. “This year, we have a different lineup. Everybody can have that moment, and that’s really good for the team.

“Thank god I’m part of the White Sox now.”

Even if you don’t get to laugh with Jiménez on Zoom calls or catch a glimpse of his camera-loving antics during game broadcasts, you should be able to glean from nothing more than the box score that he’s feeling better as a sophomore than he was as a rookie.

“I think he's starting to find his way at the major league level as a player. He's feeling more and more comfortable,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I know he always looks like he's happy-go-lucky. But it takes a little bit of time for guys to kind of sink in to understanding the depth of how good guys are at the major league level. And these guys are starting to show that they're capable of handling anything that's thrust in front of them.”

Jiménez showed off the kind of dead-center power he unleashed Tuesday throughout his rookie season in 2019, which he finished with 31 home runs. But even with that big number, that campaign was hardly a runaway success for him.

RELATED: White Sox proving they can win big or small: 'We have that belief now'

Renteria talked often about how Jiménez was just scratching the surface of the kind of big leaguer he was going to be. And Jiménez himself has admitted often since that, at least out of the gate, he wasn’t playing how he wanted to be playing.

This season’s just a week and a half old, but already things are going much better for the 23-year-old left fielder.

“I feel much better, more confident at the plate,” he said. “Last year, I tried to do too much. This year? Go out and enjoy. That pretty much helped me.”

In general, this White Sox lineup is looking much beefier than it did when Jiménez was a rookie last year. In addition to him flexing his muscles in the middle of the order, the White Sox are getting contributions all over the place.

Luis Robert has been a daily wow factor, showing off his hit tool, his power tool and, as of this week, his speed tool. Yoán Moncada has been a steady hit producer. José Abreu came through with two huge hits against the Brewers, a game-tying homer Monday and a go-ahead RBI single Tuesday. Yasmani Grandal has heated up after a slow start. Edwin Encarnación presents a constant power threat. Even unexpected contributors have emerged in Leury García and Adam Engel.

In other words, the White Sox offense can do a lot of damage. But you knew that after it produced a combined 20 runs and 35 hits in wins Saturday and Sunday in Kansas City.

Jiménez is playing a starring role, which isn’t terribly surprising, considering he’s got the camera-friendly personality to go along with the highlight-reel home runs.

“I think it's hard to be in a bad mood when you're hitting game-tying home runs,” starting pitcher Lucas Giolito said. “Eloy's one of the very positive presences, one of the very positive people in our clubhouse. He's always laughing. He always has a smile on his face, always looks on the bright side of things. He's definitely a great guy to have in the clubhouse, amazing teammate.

“Obviously we saw what he can do on a baseball field tonight.”

RELATED: What José Abreu knew was coming: White Sox wins and playoff-style baseball

This is what the White Sox envisioned all along, of course, since the second they got Jiménez from the Cubs in that 2017 trade. A methodical rebuilding project was always supposed to end in a lineup as potent as this one, and Jiménez was to be right in the thick of it, alongside Robert, Moncada, Abreu and the rest.

But this is a long-term endeavor, too, one that's supposed to set the White Sox up for success years into the future, not only in 2020. Jiménez is supposed to only get better as only gets more comfortable.

This guy? More comfortable than he already is?

To borrow from Jiménez, who reacted to the final two questions he was asked Tuesday with playful confusion:

“Huh!?!?”


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White Sox proving they can win big or small: 'We have that belief now'

White Sox proving they can win big or small: 'We have that belief now'

The White Sox have proven they can beat teams big. Now they’re showing an ability to win close, intense ballgames.

Both contests in Milwaukee were nail biters, but the White Sox found a way to win 3-2 Tuesday night at Miller Park after an equally impressive 6-4 win Monday.

“Just grit and determination,” Tuesday’s starter Lucas Giolito said. “We have that belief now that was kind of missing the last couple years that we trust how good we are. We trust our talent. We know that if the game is close, we have a very, very good chance of winning it.”

Belief in baseball is a dangerous weapon and Giolito did his part to run the White Sox’s win streak to six games, allowing just two runs and four hits in six innings of work. But for the second straight night, it took clutch pitching and clutch hitting to hold off the Brewers. The White Sox trailed by two runs in both games, but one night after José Abreu tied things up with a two-run home run in the seventh inning, Eloy Jiménez did the same thing Tuesday in the sixth inning.

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“You’re seeing a different cast of characters contributing, so that’s nice to see and that’s actually a good sign for our team,” manager Rick Renteria said after the win.

Indeed, it seems like the White Sox are always one swing away from getting back in any ballgame, which is a sign of a competitive team. The Brewers might not be at full strength right now, but they still threw some good pitchers at the White Sox the last two nights. Corbin Burnes was a handful on Monday, but Abreu used an 11-pitch at-bat from the fifth inning to help him finally crack the code in the seventh. A similar event played out Tuesday, as Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff was pitching a gem before Jiménez tagged him for a 428-foot blast to center field. In his first two at-bats, Jiménez chipped away with singles before getting the big one.

"We get out and play hard for nine innings,” Jiménez said. “We can win with (many) runs and with one run. We are a really good team and we just try to go out and play hard.”

The White Sox are backing up the hype, surviving a slow 1-4 start to improve to 7-4 after a six-game win streak. That has allowed them to stay two games behind the red hot, 9-2 Minnesota Twins, despite the White Sox dealing with mounting injuries.

The two days in Milwaukee proved to be costly for left shoulders, as Carlos Rodón, Nick Madrigal and Edwin Encarnación all left Wisconsin with left shoulder soreness. Rodón was placed on the 10-day Injured List Tuesday, but there appears to be some legitimate optimism that his injury might not be too serious.

“It wasn’t too crazy or anything. Hopefully we’ll have him back soon,” Giolito said.

Madrigal left Tuesday’s game after injuring his shoulder on a slide into third base. He was attempting to go from first to third on a Luis Robert single and Renteria admitted it was probably a play where Madrigal should have pulled up at second base. Encarnación suffered his shoulder injury on a swing. Both players left the game and will be reevaluated Wednesday in Chicago.

The depth is certainly being tested, but the White Sox are hardly flinching. That was proven by overcoming the 1-4 start and a doubleheader sweep in Cleveland a week ago. The White Sox haven’t lost since.

“We didn’t even need to talk about it,” Giolito said. “That last game against Cleveland, we knew we had to go in and do our job. Going into Kansas City it was all about taking care of business.”

And in Milwaukee it was about riding the momentum. They did exactly that, showing they can win in a variety of ways.

Now the Brewers visit Chicago, where Dallas Keuchel awaits. And the only question is, who will step up next?

 

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